Devolution set to pull further on Westminster

Sat, Nov 21, 2009, 00:00

Wales should wield greater power over its primary legislation, suggests a new report. PATRICK SMYTHhas more...

TUCKED AWAY largely unnoticed in Queen Elizabeth’s speech this week was the shortest of references to Scottish devolution and legislation to implement some of the recommendations of a report of the Calman Commission that would give the Scottish Assembly significantly more tax-raising powers. The scope of such changes are currently the subject of discussions at Westminster likely to produce proposals soon.

A decade after the establishment of devolved parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the dynamic of devolution rolled on this week on all fronts. Across the sea from Edinburgh, Northern Ireland politicians tussled with the devolution of police and justice powers while, in Cardiff, Welsh assembly members demanded new powers for their largely toothless parliament.

As Britain faces into an election, with the prospect of Labour being replaced by a Tory administration, there is clearly a sense of urgency about enhancing one of the most far-reaching of its legacies. The regionalisation of British politics has largely been a success story in terms of both the geographical distribution of power and its reinvigoration of party politics. But a taste of power only whets the appetite for more – aAn appetite the Tories are unlikely to want to sate.

A report published in Cardiff this week, the All Wales Convention, commissioned by local ministers to look into the public’s mood on devolution, argues that the current set-up is “cumbersome” and not widely understood. Chaired by Sir Emyr Jones Parry, the report endorses the idea that the assembly should – like the assemblies in Belfast and Edinburgh: “parity of esteem”, in a language we all understand – get the right to pass primary legislation in the 20 competences devolved to it by Westminster. The assembly at present can only pass limited “measures” when specifically granted authority to do so.

To get new powers would require a referendum, and polling research conducted by the convention found a striking degree of public scepticism. Although 72 per cent favour the current devolved arrangement, only 47 per cent would vote in favour of extra powers, and 37 per cent would vote against.

Support for Welsh independence has always been weaker than the nationalist cause in Scotland, and the polling found that part of the reason was the misplaced sense among a quarter of those surveyed that extra law-making powers would equate to independence, a prospect they did not relish.

Such attitudes were reinforced by concerns about the competence of Welsh politicians, and the ability of Wales to be financially independent without the Westminster safety net, although, once again, the latter was not part of the proposal.

A referendum, which would require two-thirds support in the assembly and have to be authorised by Westminster, would be a gamble – as first minister Rhodri Morgan acknowledged, though desirable “the question is, is the appetite there?”

In Edinburgh, the Scottish Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties had established the Calman Commission to review the devolution settlement 10 years on as an alternative to the Scottish Nationalists’ (SNP) plan for a referendum on independence. Calman proposed the Scottish parliament be responsible for half the income tax raised in Scotland – in return for a cut in the current favourable block grant of some £32 billion that Scotland receives from the UK exchequer. Such changes in the existing “Barnett formula” for determining expenditure levels across the regions would raise expectations in Northern Ireland, particularly over the desire to vary corporation tax rates.

Since taking office, the declared strategy of SNP leader and Scottish first minister Alex Salmond has been to make a success of governing Scotland under devolution and hope that will help persuade voters to take the extra step to independence.

While he appears to be succeeding in the first, there is little sign yet of it paying off in popular support for an independent Scotland. And the hope that his popularity would lead to a surge in SNP support took a knock last week when Labour took a byelection in Glasgow North East to the surprise of many observers.

There appears little chance he will meet his target of building on the 2007 Holyrood election victory by raising the party’s seven-strong Westminster contingent to 20. That makes the wishful thinking of holding the balance of power and forcing a Tory government to “dance to a Scottish jig” a slim prospect. And back at Holyrood, the likelihood is the SNP will also fail to pass its Referendum Bill paving the way for a vote on independence.

Yet the stalling prospects for an SNP breakthrough do not necessarily mean the eclipse of the nationalist cause. It is quite likely that Scottish Labour in opposition in a few months, freed from defending an unpopular Westminster government, may shift to a more nationalist position.

As Ian McWhirter argued recently in the Glasgow Herald“We will be reminded that, since the days of Keir Hardie, Labour has been the main vehicle for Scottish home rule aspirations; that it was Labour which set up the Scottish Constitutional Convention, and which the SNP boycotted; and that it was a Labour government that delivered the Scottish Parliament.”

The general election may produce a Conservative and unionist government, but it could also inject a new, fascinating dynamic into the reimagining of the “United” Kingdom.